Diana Santee # 5: Tristesse-Book2

Chapters 1 to 15 are in Tristesse Book 1.

Chapter 16

The first shuttle to Tristesse Orbital Station had less than a dozen people on it, including Val and me. Val sat with his head back and his eyes closed, obviously trying to grab a little more rest before the shuttle docked. I could have used some more rest myself, but relaxing right now was totally beyond me.

I shifted slightly in the gold brocade chair, impatient with the shuttle's low lighting, soft music, and slow pace. Docking at an orbital station is no big deal, but liner shuttles always took at least fifteen minutes to do it, tripling the time it should have taken. I'd begun to be filled with irrepressible excitement, the sort of little-girl excitement that would touch me while I was growing up.

It had always come on special occasions, like birthdays, or annual celebration days, or the day Laura and I would be leaving for a private vacation, just the two of us. I wanted to bounce in my seat, or storm into the control compartment and dock the shuttle myself, or just scream at everyone to hurry up - anything other than just sit there. I usually think of myself as having all the self-control I need, but right now I was obviously turning up considerably short.

I forced myself to stretch out in the comfortable chair and locked my fingers around the armrests, fighting the urge to do with thoughts of what hadn't yet been done. I'd awakened this morning still in Val's arms, my body satisfied but my mind disgusted. Val had misinterpreted everything I'd said the night before, leaving him no closer to being prepared for Tristesse than he'd been before I started.

I suppose I'm something of a believer in fate, at least in so far as certain inevitabilities go, so it wasn't hard to tell myself that Val seemed to be in the hands of Fate. The Fates were supposed to be female, and as I turned my head to study Val's dozing profile I could see why females would want to send him to Tristesse unawares. He was one of the most beautiful males I'd ever seen, face or body, but he had a very one-sided view when it came to going without clothes.

It was okay when I did it and gave him a chance to touch me, but turnabout was definitely not necessary - or particularly desirable. He'd enjoyed having me naked in his lap the night before and he'd taken his time getting rid of his own clothes, savoring the sense of ... power, maybe, that he'd felt while still dressed. He'd talked about how lucky it was I didn't go natural all the time, but he hadn't been picturing himself as natural too. Only me. With him dressed. As though he had the right to look and I didn't.

If there were Fates and they were female, Val had put his foot in it with them more than he'd ever done with me. His attitudes had earned him the coming shock, and how well he did with it would depend on how strong he really was. I searched for the guilt I should be feeling, didn't find it, and wasn't surprised. The tiny amount of conscience I have was sound asleep, making me a true sister to the Fates. If it was woven it would happen, and struggle would be useless.

As interminable as the waiting was, it still had to end sometime. Once the shuttle was sealed into its berth, we passengers were allowed to file out into the orbital station. People sat, stood, or walked around the docking area the way they did on any other orbital station, but the important difference was there for

anyone who knew enough to look for it.

Val, of course, didn't know what to look for, so when I led the way to the long desk where landing officials sat, all he saw was the same place every station has for making arrangements to land. Showing my I.D. stopped the usual flow of questions before it started, got us a wide-smile welcome, and immediately thereafter a quiet escort to a ground shuttle.

Val followed along with an air of paying very little attention to the arrangements, giving me the feeling he was ignoring them on purpose. It had finally come through to me that he disliked seeing people showing me obsequious deference because of my job status, and out-and-out fawning got him out-and-out mad. He'd obviously decided to ignore all the goings-on in the hopes of missing any fawning done, and all I could do was wish him good luck. I disliked those attitudes at least as much as he did, but ignoring them had never gotten me anywhere.

In a matter of minutes we were back in a shuttle, but this time it was a ground shuttle and filled with considerably more people. There was a low conversational hum coming from certain of the travelers, but most of them sat quietly and stared at the seat back in front of them, making no attempt to get friendly with the people around them. Val noticed the insular silence and made a low-voiced comment about standoffish people, but his observation was entirely wrong. The people on the shuttle weren't standoffish they were scared, simply and plainly afraid of what they would shortly be facing. Tristesse isn't a dangerous planet, but it isn't rated N.T. for nothing.

I took my seat next to Val with a sigh, considering what it meant to land on an N.T. planet. N.T. stood for No trespassing, and although Tristesse wasn't as bad as certain other N.T. planets it could be bad enough for those unprepared for it.

The first line of defense was the landing officials we had breezed past, the same as any other landing officials except for their major purpose of finding out if people coming to Tristesse knew what they were getting into. If it hadn't been for my I.D. Val and I would have been asked if we were duly registered business people having already made reservations to land on the planet. Making reservations in advance saves a considerable amount of time, and also tells the officials you've looked into the details and requirements of the planet. People with reservations are usually not delayed.

People without reservations or legitimate business on the planet quickly discover how much of a delay they'll be facing and what that delay consists of. In order to keep snickering sightseers and general irresponsibles from bothering our people, landing officials will send them to orientation classes on Tristesse customs right there on the station - and those classes have to be attended raw.

More than half of the applicants drop out then and there, finding it easier to snicker from a distance than to peel for a closer laugh. Naked people aren't quite so funny when your own unmentionables are available for inspection. Classes are held for unprepared business people too, and although the overall attitude is different the required nudity isn't waived.

It may be your intention to go nowhere on Tristesse where clothes would be an insult, but accidents can happen and incidents are thereby caused. If you intend to land on the planet, you have to show the ability to ditch your clothes if it becomes necessary.

City dwellers on Tristesse are cosmopolitan and broadminded, but our rural areas are as inflexible and old fashioned as those on other planets; the only difference is what they're inflexible about.

I glanced casually around the shuttle, automatically checking for familiar faces, accidentally making eye contact with a man across the aisle. The man was ignoring the woman sitting next to him, but habit caused him to look at me before he realized what he was dong. It didn't take more than ten seconds for memory to come to him; his face turned ruddy with embarrassment and he quickly looked away, returning his eyes to a safe and neutral seat back.

Val snorted softly in amusement at my left, obviously thinking the man had turned away because of his presence. In point of fact the man had turned away in fear, but not through fear of Val. The man knew he might soon be totally without clothes, and his fear was that he would find a woman attractive and thereby embarrass himself.

He was most likely finding his bodily reactions pitifully beyond his control, a common reaction in newcomers. Most of them thought ignoring everyone around them would do something to solve the problem, but ignoring things didn't mean you weren't thinking about them. The only way to beat it is to not give a damn who might see you, but that attitude takes a lot of practice and practice is one thing newcomers don't have.

I returned my attention to Val, wondering again how he would react. He might face nudity with the same calm he faced most other things; it wasn't totally out of the question. But he also might react the way other people did, and for some ridiculous reason the thought made me want to laugh out loud. I moved in my seat, fighting to keep my face straight, and it was too much to expect that Val would miss the movement.

"Are you squirming around again?" he asked with a chuckle, turning in his seat to look at me. "Ever since we reached the orbital station you've been acting more and more like those small children who were on the liner. Right now you look like that five year old who thought she had a secret."

Ordinarily I would have been appalled at how accurate his guess was, but something had been happening to me. The closer to home I got, the more eager I was to put all worries away with my clothes. I did have a secret, and I could almost feel the sparkle that secret put in my eyes.

"Well, you were the one who wanted a minor to look after," I reminded him with a laugh, crossing my booted feet at the ankles. "Are you complaining now that you really have one?"

"That all depends on what the minor is like," he retorted, reaching a hand out to push some hair out of my eyes. "If she's a good little girl I don't mind a bit, but if she's making bad-little-girl plans ..." He shook his head. "All I can say is, she'd better not be."

"Oh, they're not exactly plans," I answered with a shrug, still showing my amusement. "It's just that I can't help but remember how many times I've landed boats bigger than this one on a planet. If I relieved the pilot at his controls I could substitute breaking jets for a few of the spirals he'll be using, and we'd be down in half the time it usually takes."

"But with everyone on board bruised and battered," he said with a snort, giving me one of those looks. "Breaking jets are for hotshot space jockeys, not passengers on a shuttle. They'd have to be crazy to let you do something like that."

"What makes you think the choice would be theirs?" I murmured, feeling a strange, quiet smile take me as I moved my eyes to the entrance to the control compartment. "All I'd have to do is make the request official, and they'd have nothing to say about it. I could do anything I damned well pleased."

Val was silent as I stared at the door, making it that thick silence he was so good at projecting. Then, "You can't mean you have that kind of power! I know your authority extends farther than that of most of your planetary officials, but innocent people are involved here. What about them?"

"It's all left to my discretion," I sing-songed very softly, almost drunk with the idea. "How about it, partner? Feel like taking a wild ride with me? I promise you'd never forget it."

"Diana, stop it!" he growled, grabbing my shoulders and forcing me to face him again. "I can't believe you'd be that irresponsible!"

Even held low his voice was harsh, the look on his face disbelieving disapproval. My daydreaming had nearly disillusioned him, but he was right in everything he'd said. I might commandeer a shuttle if no one else was aboard, but only to save an entire planet would I risk the well-being of others. I had that much power at my discretion for the simple reason that I'd never use it foolishly. I might daydream and I might be tempted, but exercising power isn't one of my turn-ons.

"Why shouldn't I do it?" I asked with a soft laugh, unreasonably pleased that he found such an action from me unexpected. "Don't forget, I'm not the one in charge. If anyone got the blame, it would be my guardian."

His eyes suddenly showed he knew I was teasing, and the stern look he produced was in answer to that.

"You're absolutely right," he agreed with a nod, a gleam behind the sternness. "I would be the one to get the blame. But guess who would have to face me once that part of it was over? And guess what would happen to her."

"You've got a good point," I conceded, reaching out to smooth the collar of his shirt. "Considering how terribly frightened of you I am, I guess I'd better be good."

His gentle laughter joined mine as our eyes met, both of us amused at the ridiculousness of the picture I'd drawn. Val had had a number of examples of just how frightened I was of him, each example giving him a bigger headache than the last. There were times he seemed gigantically pleased that I felt no fear in his company or his arms, a circumstance which had set me thinking about the sort of women he had to be used to.

Val was big and dangerous, but he was definitely not the sort of man to abuse a woman. What sort of shrinking violet would it take to fear him? I didn't know and wasn't sure I wanted to know. A strong man among women like that would be an unfulfilled man, one whose life would consist of rigid do's and don't's. I'm too fond of my own freedom to be comfortable with the thought of a life like that.

The shuttle finally left its slip and headed planetward, the pilot taking it slow and easy out of concern for his passengers. If I'd had to sit there doing nothing the entire trip I would have gone crazy, so I used the time to catch up on what was going on among the natives.

Val had put his chair back and closed his eyes again, indulging in a soldier's second favorite way of spending free time, not even stirring when I took the set of headphones out of the chair back in front of me. I could have watched prerecorded tri-v programs, but that wouldn't have done anything to bring me up-to-date on planetary doings. Instead I switched on the full time radio news station which concentrated on events in and around Freedom City, made myself comfortable, then began to absorb news items.

I'd tuned in in the middle of a weather report, one which assured everyone that the temperature would continue in the mid-nineties around Freedom City and its outlying areas for at least another month. Really warm weather was developing in the south and southwest, but would not be reaching Freedom City for some time. Weather stations on the Saroan continent had reported temperatures reaching one hundred forty degrees Fahrenheit this spring, producing speculation about how residents of that continent would cope with summer.

I stirred in discomfort at the thought of having to take such high heat, but wasn't worried about the Saroans. After having met a few of them, I knew they would take the heat the same way they always did: with enjoyment. If it got down as far as eighty during their winter, committees would meet to consider allowing clothing to be worn as protection against the chill. They never voted that permission, of course, but low temperatures always brought up the topic for discussion - just as mention of Ritlo continent always killed it.

The Ritlons lived in a climate exactly opposite to the Saroans, moving about in comfort at temperatures most of the rest of us would be blue at. Twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit above zero was low even for Ritlo, but they stood it the same way Saroans stood one hundred forty. The rest of Tristesse marveled at those two continents, sighed at what their citizens put themselves through, then proceeded to ignore them. Temperate-climate people tend to consider everyone else insane, but Tristessans were much too polite to say so out loud.

Crime was holding at a relatively low level in Freedom City, except in the visitors' section where it was increasing. Political enemies of the current Planetary Moderator were having a field day with the statistics, claiming the presence of clothing on all those outlanders as the main cause of the upsurge in crime. The visitors' section, around the spaceport, was the only exception to required nudity, a stand taken by the Planetary Moderator's office against widespread political opposition.

Most business people understood the necessity, but there were enough average citizens around who didn't approve to make the point a fairly important one. That Tristesse would lose more than half her off-planet business and trade if the visitors' section was eliminated was something rarely mentioned by anyone but the incumbent Moderator, who could be expected to say something like that. If it ever came down to putting a new Moderator in office to cure the problem, dozens of reasons would suddenly be found as to why the status quo had to be maintained. It was the sort of fast foot-shuffling that had been going on even when I'd still been living on the planet, but no one seemed to remember that. I suppose they were too close to the forest to see the trees.

I wouldn't have believed it possible, but the drone of the newsman's voice actually put me to sleep. One minute my eyes were blinking slowly, and the next Val was shaking my shoulder to point out the flashing sign directing everyone to fasten seatbelts. I turned the radio off and put the headphones away, stretched once, then sat back in my seat again. Now that we were almost down, I was more anxious than ever.

"You'd better fasten your seat belt, young lady," a steward directed as he passed slowly by. "There are thunderstorms over the port right now, and the landing may turn bumpy."

"That's right, 'young lady,'" Val echoed as the man passed out of earshot. "Get that seat belt fastened."

I turned my head to see Val smiling faintly, obviously enjoying himself at my expense. I gave him a cold, hard stare without making any effort to touch the seat belt, then suddenly stuck my tongue out at him. The gesture made him chuckle, but it didn't stop him from leaning toward me to close the seat belt. I noticed that his own seat belt hadn't been closed yet, but he made sure he saw to mine. I wanted to think of the action as bossiness, but other, more disturbing interpretations popped up to give me a hard time. I told myself I was imagining things and turned away from him, finding more peace of mind just anticipating the landing.

We all needed our seat belts before we were down and settled on the landing field. The shuttle bucked and vibrated to the fury of the storm, shaking up everyone in it and taking their minds off their former woes. When the engines died to quiet and the port shutters slid down, no one moved out of his or her seat. The rain was coming down in sheets, drenching everything it touched, obscuring the view of anything more than twenty feet away. I sat and drummed my fingers on the seat arm for a minute, studying the rain, then abruptly made up my mind.

"Val, let's get moving," I said, touching him on the arm. "A little rain won't hurt us."

"A little rain?" he echoed, turning away from the port he'd been looking through. "Diana, it's teeming out there. We won't even be able to see where we're going."

"The reception building isn't far," I said, looking out at the rain as if it were an enemy. "I've got to go, Val. I can't stand just sitting here."

I've never really suffered from claustrophobia, but what I do suffer from isn't far from that. When I'm on a job I have all the patience that job calls for, but when I'm faced with delay in my personal life I can't stand it. It's like being tied down to one spot longer than a month or two, longer than the immediate need that brought you there. Gravity pulls harder and the air grows thin, and hundreds of hands reach out to hold you and keep you from going where you have to.

Dr. Jo had called it Wanderer's Syndrome and told me not to worry about it, but that was because most Special Agents suffered from it and it went too deep to remove with causal therapy. It was a matter of not worrying about something I couldn't change and I usually followed the advice, but that didn't mean I stopped suffering from it. It came back every now and then to tie my insides to the tail end of my mind, and Val must have seen something of what I was going through. He glanced at the rain again and shook his head, then threw his hands up in a gesture of defeat.

"I must be crazier than you are," he muttered, still shaking his head. "Instead of making you sit here the way I ought to, I'm actually ready to follow you out into that. If I drown, I'll have no one but myself to blame."

I laughed softly and squeezed his arm, then paid attention to opening my seat belt. The compulsion was so strong I'd been ready to leave him there if necessary, even if it meant I might not see him again. I'm not usually caught up so tightly in the compulsion, which proves how badly I needed that vacation. I was letting things happen rather than making them happen, a bad habit to get into.

People stared at us as we made our way up the aisle to the shuttle exit, looking as if they thought we were crazy. The shuttle personnel thought we were crazy too, but they were in no position to argue with my I.D. They opened the lock and extended the ladder, all the while wondering what the official emergency could be, never noticing the grin I fought to hide. The "official emergency" was another secret I had, and I felt more than ever like that five year old child.

The first gust of wind and rain forced everyone back from the lock, but not because it was cold. The rain was warm enough to have been heated over a low fire, and the wind had died down to almost nothing at all. I stepped out into it and carefully made my way down the metal ladder, hearing thunder in the distance a long time after a faraway flash.

The rain came down almost straight, soaking me through the first minute I was out in it, but the force of it showed it wouldn't be lasting very long. Freedom City was subject to thunderstorms all year round, but I wasn't interested enough in meteorology to know why. I just finished my soggy climb down the ladder and stood there waiting for Val to do the same.

When we were both on the ground, I turned away from the shuttle and headed out in the direction the reception building had to be in. I couldn't see it yet, of course, but all shuttles land with their exit ports facing the building, keeping their passengers from the necessity of walking around the shuttle. The rain was almost solid, coming down with a weight that bowed our heads and shoulders, forcing us to close our eyes and walk almost blind. Val put his hand on my arm as we sloshed through the deep, running puddles, but I didn't know if it was to keep me on my feet or keep him from being separated from me. The rain was so bad, either choice was a possibility.

The five minute walk lengthened to fifteen, but the reception building finally loomed out of the rain in front of us, the entrance doors more to the left than I'd been aiming for. We changed course and moved a little faster, and a minute later pushed our way through the doors and into the dry interior. The automatic door openers had been turned off to keep the rain out, and our appearance took everyone by surprise. As a number of people started to make their way toward us, I turned to Val with a grin.

"Welcome to Tristesse, partner," I said, pushing the sopping wet hair out of my eyes and watching him do the same. "You can't say our arrivals are boring and routine."

"What's wrong with boring and routine?" he muttered, eyeing the people on their way over to us. "If I ever had a chance to sample it, I might find I liked it."

All I could do was laugh at that, and then we were in the middle of concerned, demanding people. The concerned portion had brought improvised towels with them to give us a chance to dry off, knowing how the stiff air conditioning would feel after the warm shower we'd had. The demanding portion didn't give a damn if we froze to death, as long as we came up with unarguable reasons for not waiting with everyone else.

Once again I found it prudent to show my I.D., which took care of the need to come up with reasons. Everyone knew Special Agents don't need to explain the things they do, and the abrupt but familiar change in attitude sent Val a few steps away from the crowd around me. He stood with his back to us, drying his hair as he looked around at the large, nearly empty reception building, every muscle in his shoulders screaming disapproval.

He knew why I'd taken us into the rain, but I think he would have been happier if I'd gotten into trouble over it. He didn't like the idea that I did as I pleased, possibly because I so often did it to him. I thought again of what I was doing to him right now, and had to swallow down a grin. Seeing his face when he finally found out would be worth almost any price I had to pay. It was a really dirty trick, but at this point I couldn't have let it go even I'd wanted to. It had gone too far, and I had to take it to the end to see if I could pull it off.

With Val out of earshot, I let the people around me know I was a native, and that I required transportation into Freedom City. Everyone in the building wore clothing out of courtesy to the inbound travelers, and learning that I was a native let them know they didn't have to worry about the clothing Val and I wore. I let them assume that once we were out of the business district we would be out of the clothing as well, an understanding which would keep them from saying the wrong thing to Val.

One of the group took off to arrange the transportation I'd requested, and after calling to Val I followed another to an upchute which would give access to that transportation. Val came after me without saying a word, and it wasn't until we were on the roof and strapping into our vehicle that he spoke.

"It looks like the rain is almost over," he said, peering out the front windshield to the roof edge. "If we'd waited just a few minutes more we wouldn't have had to get wet."

"It would have been more than just a few minutes," I muttered, flipping switches and watching readouts. "They won't bring out the exit ramp until the rain is completely over, to keep it from getting wet and slippery. The water will drain off the field fast, but not so fast that people will want to walk on it. Everyone will insist on having cars sent out, and there's no guarantee ours was the first shuttle to land. If this was a backward world none of that would apply, but this is a civilized world. Civilized equates with time wasting."

I wasn't looking at him, but that didn't mean I couldn't feel his eyes on me.

"Civilized seems to be a concept you don't care for," he observed, his tone no more than conversational. "Personally, I happen to prefer it. If this world was uncivilized, we'd probably be on foot now instead of about to take off in a hopper. Don't you consider that a benefit?"

"Of sorts," I returned with a shrug, feeding power slowly into the system. "How much training do you need to take off somewhere on foot? And what happens if something in your beneficial vehicle malfunctions? Once you're airborne, it's a long way down to the ground. And for your own information, these vehicles aren't called hoppers here. These are pokes, and their faster counterparts are zips."

All indicators were on the green, so I released the brake, rolled forward a few feet, then took off into the last glistening drops of the rainstorm. The clouds were already parting to let the sunshine through, bouncing bright rays off puddles and buildings, preparing the way for a blue, blue sky to fly in. I really enjoy flying, so I suppose I'd said what I had to Val only to play Devil's Advocate to whatever stand he happened to be taking. I'd already decided on the liner that he didn't consider me civilized, and I sometimes get perverse satisfaction out of proving people's points for them - whether those points are true or not.

"I can see why these things are called pokes," Val said, gesturing toward the dial showing airspeed. We were moving at maximum thrust and still weren't going very fast. "Why are there two vehicles when one would serve the same purpose?"

"Your key word is purpose," I told him, changing our heading very slightly. "Pokes are for city traveling alone, and their purpose is to keep traffic slow. They used to let people fly multi-purpose vehicles over the city, but with some people, having the speed means having to use it. Sealing the controls was a waste of time because bypassing the seals without letting it show was too easy. Now people travel around the city with pokes, and travel distances or go home to the suburbs in zips. We're in the fastest speed lane for pokes, and don't have to worry about being sideswiped by a zip. Anyone with a zip has to circle the city rather than shortcut across it."

"Interesting," he said with a nod, staring out his seat window. "But how about flying a little lower? What I can see of that city looks magnificent, and I'd like to get closer."

"I can't go lower at this speed," I said with complete honesty, glancing at him out of the corner of my eye. What I didn't say was that flying lower would let him see entirely too much, especially once we passed the fringes of the visitors' section. "I'd like to get to Laura's office as soon as possible. You can sightsee later."

He didn't say anything to that, but I'd gotten to know him well enough to know he wasn't pleased with my answer. Val just didn't like being made to do things my way, and that was that. As long as he hadn't been given a choice, the end result didn't suit him.

From the air the city looked like a mythical fairyland, tall, glistening white buildings surrounded by smaller buildings in various pastel shades. The height of a building determined what color it would be, the tallest being white, the next a sparkling baby blue, the next a light corn yellow, after that sky green, powder pink, light suntan, orange tinge, and so on.

No two buildings of the same height stood beside one another with the single exception of the planetary Governmental offices: two identical skytowers, facing each other not far from the visitors' section. Val's breath drew in as the brightening sunlight hit them just as we were passing, turning them into flaming gold magnificence reaching for the clouds. My gasp was lower than his, but only because I'd seen the sight many times before and was expecting - and even hoping for - it. As I said, I'd seen it before, but I'll never stop appreciating it.

Laura's yellow building wasn't far from the port, but between the slowly increasing traffic and the low speeds we were forced to maintain, the trip took about twenty minutes. Val looked around everywhere, even commenting on the flat-mirror polarization of the windows in the pokes around us. It was the same sort of polarization as that used in office building windows, and I had to talk fast to explain it away.

People in the business district used the polarization as a standard privacy arrangement, knowing how many travelers would be coming through the district every day. Not every business had off-world visitors on a regular basis, so their employees had no need to wear clothing to the office.

I told Val that the buildings used the polarization to maintain a uniform look, and the pokes used it because that's the way they were built. The reasoning was flimsy enough to sound entirely true without sounding too convincing, a necessary balance where Val was concerned. He usually acted as if everything I said was subject to verification, an attitude that annoyed me more and more the longer it went on. Just because I sometimes embroidered what I told him didn't mean everything I said was a lie.

I felt a surge of excitement when Laura's building came into view, which nearly caused me to make the mistake of heading for the wrong landing area. The area to the left, the one I usually used, was for natives who didn't happen to be wearing anything; the area to the right was for visitors and natives in clothing. The different areas each gave a different access to the building, something that became obvious once you were inside. If you made a mistake and used the wrong access, you were stared at whether you were clothed or not.

"Hey, take it easy!" Val protested as his body jerked tight against the safety harness in reaction to the last minute correction I'd made. "You're flying like a hotshot teenager out to prove he isn't chicken! Either cut it out or let someone else do the flying!"

I glanced at the anger in his dark eyes, suddenly feeling an anger of my own. Why the hell didn't he ever ask why I was doing something instead of assuming it was all a whim? Even my whims usually had reasons behind them, but not according to Val. The only thing Val was sure of was that my freedom was broader than it ought to be and needed to be curtailed. For my own good, of course. I decreased our airspeed and made the minor corrections that were necessary, then threw him a brief but very bright smile.

"But there isn't anyone else to do the flying," I purred, hoping my tone was annoying him. "I'm all there is, so you'd better get used to it."

He began to say my name with a dangerous edge to his voice, then swallowed the rest of his words when he noticed I was in the process of landing us on the building. Considering the source of what I'd said, I could imagine what he'd been about to say. Val had once made a similar comment about me getting used to having him around, but he wasn't likely to enjoy having his words thrown back at him. It was that strange double standard all over again: what was okay for him wasn't okay for me. I could see it in almost everything he did, but for the life of me couldn't understand it.

The poke settled gently to the roof in spite of all the distractions clamoring for my attention, proving my crumbling control hadn't deteriorated beyond the reflex point. I secured the controls and began to release my safety harness, more than glad Ringer had come up with the idea of sending me on vacation. If he hadn't, I might not have become aware of the problem soon enough to take off on my own.

Survival on assignment requires the full attention of the agent involved, otherwise the assignment, agent, and survival all go down the same hole together. I'd be all right once I had a little more bum-time behind me, the sort of non-productiveness I'd started on the liner; until that happened, I wouldn't even have trusted my life to me.

Val was silent after we gave the poke to the roof attendant with instructions to send it back where it came from. I wouldn't have been surprised if he'd continued with the disagreement we'd begun in the poke, but he seemed to be saving it for a more private time. The sun was shining brightly as we left the roof for the interior of the building, and smaller and larger groups of people had started to arrive and depart all around us. We had to go single file through the door to keep from colliding with the crowds, which made serious argument hard to manage. I knew he wouldn't forget about it - he never forgot about things like that - but at that point I didn't care. I was almost home where things like that couldn't touch me.

We used a dropshaft to get to Laura's main office floor. Laura's corporation owned the building, but only needed two-thirds of it for its own use. The remaining third was rented out to independent interests and no-so-independent interests, all of which was very complex, quasi-legal, and extremely boring - at least to me. I was a large stockholder in my mother's corporation, but I made no effort to find out how the business was run. The corporation wasn't my only holding, and there are a limited number of investigations an agent can spare the time for. I investigated the others and left Laura entirely alone; after all, if you can't trust your own mother, who can you trust?

I saw immediately that the reception area had been redone since the last time I'd been here. Deep-pile carpeting now lay where a grass floor had been, showing that Laura had discovered how unwieldy real grass can be. Grass floors had been the fad at the time, but none of the enthusiasts had asked themselves what they would do if the grass died. Walking into a dirt-floored reception room tends to make you doubt the ability of the business that owns the dirt floor, and Laura and I had had a bet as to how long the floor and the fad would last. I grinned to myself as I looked around, making a mental note to ask Laura about it later.

"May I help you?" a voice asked, and I looked up at the wall in front of me to see a cartoon version of a female cat smiling at me out of a picture frame. The pretty thing had very long eyelashes, delightful almond eyes, a beautiful smile, and a long, gracefully expressive tail. This unusual receptionist was tri-colored, and I couldn't help answering with a smile of my own.

"We're here to see Laura Santee," I said, noticing from Val's grin that he was just as charmed as I was. "She's expecting us."

"And who may I say is calling?" the fluffy receptionist purred, stretching herself out with paws in front of her the way a real cat would do. Her pose now told us we were part of the family, and her acceptance made me feel oddly pleased.

"I'm Diana Santee and this is Valdon Carter," I answered, suppressing the urge to reach a hand out to stroke the cartoon. I really liked that little cat, but trying to touch her would probably have destroyed the illusion.

"Thank you," the cat-picture smiled, lowering her chin to her paws. "Someone will be with you in a moment."

The almond eyes blinked sleepily and then they were closed, resting after having done their job. She felt perfectly safe sleeping in front of us, and again I was pleased - just as I was supposed to be. Laura's creative people had done a great job with the concept of other-than-computer attractions to add to a business's lure, and I was almost tempted to ask what else they'd developed. I knew the question would bring on a recruiting speech from Laura, though, so I'd probably skip it until the next time I came by. I wasn't about to join Laura's work force, and there would be enough things to argue about without including that one.

In no more than the promised moment, a door opened in the wall beside the cat picture and a human female appeared. Her smile wasn't as appealing as the cat's, but we followed her anyway into a plain, carpeted hall that would lead to Laura's office. The girl was dressed in a stylish tunic and pants outfit, the sort that can be slipped on in one minute flat. Seeing her told me the purpose of the cat receptionist, a useful and clever idea.

No matter who walked into the reception room, they would be greeted in the exact state of dress or undress that they, themselves, presented. A signal had probably been flashed to the girl telling her we were in clothing, giving her a chance to dress before coming out to greet us. Considering all her off-planet interests Laura often spent the workday clothed, but she never insisted that her people do the same.

The corridor led to a modest, realwood door with Laura's name on it, which the girl opened for us. I moved past her and into the room, seeing Laura already on her feet and coming around the smoky glass desk toward me. She grinned, I grinned, and then we were in the middle of the room, hugging and laughing and looking each other over. Laura still looked great with her short auburn hair, pretty face, and curvy figure. She wore a brown casual business suit, yellow blouse, and dark brown pumps, and her sparkling eyes moved over me memorizing details.

"Let me take a look at you," she said at last, stepping out at arm's length to study me. "I didn't know if I'd like the new you, but now I can see I'll love it. I won't have to worry about showing my age when I introduce you to people as my daughter."

Laura was grinning and teasing me gently, and I couldn't resist joining the game.

"You, worry?" I scoffed, looking down at her with my fists on my hips. "Since when did you ever worry about anything when you were introducing me to people? Val, Laura always used the same routine, which went something like this: 'How do you do? I'm Laura Santee and this is my daughter Diana. Do you have any sons?'"

Val's chuckle joined my grin, and Laura laughed even as she blushed.

"I wasn't that bad," she protested, one hand brushing at her hair as she looked toward Val. "You never seemed able to find a boy who would suit you, and I was only trying to help."

"Some help," I snorted, shaking my head at her. "Have you any idea how many boys I had to convince I wasn't as desperate as you made me sound?"

"There was always the chance of finding the right one among them," she lectured, totally unbothered by what she had put me through. "If nothing else, it showed you that you weren't missing anything. And are you going to wait until you're ready to leave before introducing me to the gentleman with you?"

My eyebrows went up at her use of the word "gentleman," but then I remembered where I was and who I was dealing with. It had been a while since I'd last been home, but it hadn't been that long. Laura's eyes hadn't left Val since she'd finished her inspection of me, and putting off the introductions wouldn't have saved me anything. I turned to look at Val just as she was doing, and gestured him closer.

"I don't know if introducing you two is safe or intelligent, but I guess I'm trapped," I surrendered with a sigh. "Laura, I'd like you to meet my partner, Valdon Carter. Val, as if you didn't already know, this is my mother, Laura."

"I'm so pleased to meet you," Laura said with a smile just for him, her voice as smoothly convincing as her hand on his arm was graceful. "It was so nice of you to bring Diana home for a visit."

"Diana brought me," Val corrected, but very gently and obviously charmed. "You have so beautiful a planet here I'm glad she did."

"We are rather proud of it," Laura agreed with a devastating smile. "You'll be staying with us, of course, so I'll call you Val and you call me Laura. Formality would be downright silly."

I stood to one side watching my mother go after Val, almost wishing she could be like other mothers and want him for herself. A stranger watching Laura might think that that's what she was up to, but unfortunately I knew better. Laura was trying to hook Val for me, and that was the part that made me sigh.

"Laura, please," I said with the sigh, all too aware of how quickly Val had taken to her. "I wish you wouldn't encourage him like that. Encouragement is the last thing he needs."

"It is?" she asked, her smile now radiant. "I'm delighted to hear that."

"I'm afraid you and I are the only ones who are delighted," Val put in wryly, amusement behind the black of his eyes. "Diana doesn't care for the idea."

Laura's smile dissolved like a meteor in atmosphere, and she gave me a stabbing glance before shaking her head at Val.

"She's been something of a disappointment to me lately," she confided to Val with a sigh, then turned her head to me to reinforce the previous stab. "And she was so bright as a child, too."

Val laughed out loud at that, obviously enjoying himself. He now knew he had an ally in Laura, someone who would help advance the cause he had been pursuing so carefully. If I hadn't been prepared for the way Laura would act, I might have begun to feel cornered and outnumbered; as it was, I had no trouble resisting them both.

"Well, to tell the truth, Laura, I brought Val along for you," I drawled. "If you don't like him, I can always send him back."

I was hoping for a reaction from both of them, and I wasn't disappointed. Val's eyes lost the amusement he'd been showing, a hardness appearing at the suggestion that he'd been "brought along" for someone like a pet or a slave. Laura stared at me in dismay, a strong flush on her cheeks from the embarrassment she felt. It wasn't a personal embarrassment, of course; Laura was a sophisticated businesswoman who could handle anything short of actual rape with a cool most people envied. Her embarrassment was for the way I'd wrecked her work with Val, possibly alienating him beyond all further efforts.

"Diana, you ought to be ashamed of yourself for saying something like that!" Laura snapped, suddenly angry at the grin I showed. "I thought I raised you to behave better than that!"

"You raised me to recognize the time to attack," I countered with a laugh. "If that wasn't the right time, I'll eat it. Now go ahead, tell me I wasn't being outnumbered."

Laura studied me briefly, her dark, lovely eyes trying to stay angry, but we'd been fighting the battle a long time; when I won a point, she never denied it. Her lips smiled first, shifting her still-smooth cheeks out of the grim line they'd been in, then the smile reached her eyes, chasing the anger away.

"All right," she grudged with a small laugh. "You were outnumbered and within your rights to attack. But that doesn't mean I approve of the way you attacked. The least you can do is apologize to Val."

I shifted my grin to Val, who still looked annoyed.

"How about it, partner," I probed. "Are you waiting for an apology?"

"From you?" he asked with a snort, folding his arms across his chest. "I can think of better ways to waste my time. I don't expect an apology from her, Laura. It would be out of character."

"You see?" I said to Laura, noticing how her eyes narrowed very slightly at the exchange between Val and me. "He thinks he knows me. He may not like some of the things I say, but they aren't unexpected. We've been working together for two or three months now."

"Then we'll all just forget about it," Laura decided briskly, ignoring what I'd said about Val working with me - just as I thought she would. Laura knew I was an agent for the Federation, but what sort of agent and what my work entailed was something I'd been able to keep from her. She had enough contacts throughout the Federation to have gotten around the fence I'd built, but for some reason she'd never used them. It was possible she understood how much better off she was not knowing.

"I've cancelled the rest of my appointments for today," Laura went on, turning back to her desk and gesturing Val and me along with her. "Just a few more papers and I'll be ready to leave. Would either of you care for a cup of coffee while you're waiting?"

"I'll have one," I said, taking one of the narrow comfort chairs standing in front of her desk.

"I can use one, too," Val agreed, gingerly sitting down in the chair next to mine. The narrow golden chair seemed much too small for someone his size, but as soon as he was seated the chair spread wider to accommodate his form. An understanding expression came to his eyes, showing he'd used comfort chairs before, and he relaxed as Laura handed him a cup of coffee from the wall counter behind her desk.

"We'll have to find a place to eat when we leave here," he told Laura, nodding his thanks for the coffee. "I had a quick breakfast before we left the liner, but Diana was too impatient to eat. If you let her get away with skipping meals, she tends to make a habit of it."

"Not on Tristesse I don't," I put in, looking up from lighting a cigarette. "We have the sort of restaurants here that no one refuses to eat in. Better watch your own plate, partner; I'll be taking care of mine."

"Then we'll definitely stop before going home," Laura said, handing me a cup. "It's just past lunchtime here, and dinner is too far off."

Laura's gaze touched mine briefly before she turned to walk back to her desk, making me wonder about the strange look I'd glimpsed in her eyes. I was sure she hadn't missed the annoyance in my tone when I'd answered Val's pestering, but that didn't account for the look of … hope, maybe? - that I'd seen. I knew her fondest hope was to see me paired up with a man, and I'd been trying to show her that Val wasn't the answer to her prayers. Apparently she was more than impressed with him, and had taken to avoiding the denials I'd set up for her.

I sipped at my coffee as I watched Val get up for more sugar and cream, quickly assuring Laura that he could get it himself and she didn't have to bother. I'd have to have a private talk with Laura, and once I did she'd be able to cross Val off her list. Even without telling her exactly how things stood, I'd make her understand that Val was no one I could get deeply involved with. Even if I discovered I felt more for him than I should.

Laura settled herself with the papers that needed her attention, and after doctoring up his coffee Val went back to his chair and spent some time examining the furnishings around him. He seemed to like the smoky glass desk and white carpeting, the gold chairs and gold-flecked-smoke walls, but he stared at the long conference table at the far end of the office as if he didn't know what it was for.

I thought back to my time in Dameron's base, just before going down to Tildor, and suddenly realized all those briefing sessions I'd had had been held on a lump-couch with lump-chairs pulled close around it. Small tables had been set up for those who needed them, but there hadn't been anything like a conference table at any time. I thought the discovery might have some significance, but I was in no mood to figure out what it could be. I was too happy to be home, too confused about Val, too anxious to be out of that office, too concerned about Laura, too everything to even think about anything else.

By the time I'd smoked two cigarettes and finished my coffee, Laura was done with her papers. She signed three of them and put two others aside, returned her pen to its holder, and then stood up.

"Well, that's that," she announced, actually sounding pleased. "Whatever is left can be seen to some other time. Val, you can use the undressing room to the left there, and Diana will share mine. As soon as we're through we can leave."

I stood up as she began to move around the side of her desk, but I knew damned well that Val hadn't budged. His eyes had gone to the two unmarked doors on our right as Laura had gestured to them, the glimpse I'd gotten of the blankness of his expression showing how confused he was. The time had come for the great revelation, the moment of truth, the need to tell all; in other words, all I had to do was turn around and tell him the truth. I felt his presence behind me, remembered what it had been like when he'd been gone on that assignment, and finally admitted that the truth was the last thing I could risk.

"Just a minute," Val said, stopping Laura on her way to her undressing room. I'd taken only a step or two in following her, and I also stopped to look back at him. His arms lay relaxed on the chair arms, but by rights they should have been rigid.

"If you don't mind, Laura, I'd like to speak to Diana alone," he said, something of a smile forced onto his face. "We won't be long."

"Of course," she agreed, a frown in her eyes. She knew something was wrong, but not what it could be. "I'll wait for Diana in here."

She continued on to the undressing room, went inside, then closed the door firmly behind her. Val waited until he heard the click, then those dark black eyes were on me.

"Let's hear it," he growled, not a trace of friendliness in his tone. "I want to know what this means, and I want to know now!"

"What are you talking about?" I asked with my own frown, every nerve under careful control. The part I played was as dangerous as any I'd ever played on assignment, a fact I couldn't afford to forget.

"I'm talking about this undressing business!" he hissed, obviously aching to bellow. "I don't understand what's going on, but I'll bet everything I own that you do!"

"Of course I understand," I said, shaking my head in confusion. "It's the custom on this planet for men and women to undress separately. Did you think we went into a co-ed strip routine every time we happened to be dressed and needed to peel?"

The faint scorn and obvious sincerity I hit him with did their work. Confusion appeared full on his face, and he ran desperate hands through his hair.

"Diana, I still don't understand!" he nearly begged, upset clear in his eyes. "You can't mean people on this planet walk around … naked!"

"The word is 'natural,'" I told him coldly, folding my arms as I stared at him. "What's the matter, Val, have you discovered cold feet even before your shoes and socks are off? You can't pretend you didn't know. I must have talked about Tristesse almost nonstop during the last week."

"Well, if you mentioned this little gem I must have missed it," he tried to snap, but there wasn't much snap left in him. His hand rubbed at his face as he shifted around in the chair, then his eyes found me again. "What am I supposed to do now?" he demanded, but weakly.

"Why, turn and run, of course," I said, pressing my advantage with faint contempt. "I knew you'd never go through with it, though why you kept pretending is beyond me. I think we both know you're too … civilized for something like this. I'll get Laura, and she'll arrange for your transportation back to the shuttle port."

I turned away from him to walk toward Laura's undressing room, still seeing the expression my accusation had put on his face. I'd accused him of lying and cowardice and snobbery, all without using any of those words, all without giving him a chance to deny the charges. Oh, he could have denied them, of course, but not without making himself look more than foolish. He'd walked in with his eyes wide open, and he'd have to walk out again the exact same way. After dealing with him so long, I was betting everything on the chance that he couldn't do it.

I couldn't afford to act as if I expected him to change his mind, so my hand was already on Laura's undressing room door before he stopped me.

"Wait a minute," he called, and I turned with appropriate reluctance to see him getting to his feet. His expression was far from happy, but his eyes held a determination that came directly from stung pride. "Something about all this still doesn't ring true, but no one forced me to come here. I did it all on my own, and I've decided to stay the same way. On my own. What do I do with my clothes?"

"There are small guest valises in the undressing room," I told him, keeping my expression neutral. "You can carry your clothes with you that way. Are you sure this is the way you want it?"

"Completely," he growled, bringing those eyes directly over to mine. "When I give my word I keep it - even when I don't know what I'm committing myself to."

As I said, he wasn't happy, but he'd taken the major step on his own two feet and that's what I'd been trying to accomplish. I watched him walk to the undressing room and inside, then continued on into Laura's room.